WILL AND ALLISON Abernethy are the last of a dying breed. They produce hand-made butter using traditional methods that date back thousands of years, in order to truly keep this wonderful art alive.
Back in 2005, the Country Down-based couple started out visiting farmers' markets and food shows with their butter churn to show people how real butter is made. Three years ago, they spotted a gap in the market and realised there was a serious demand for artisan butter.
Using knowledge passed down from Allison’s father, the couple started churning around 10 litres of cream per week into butter. Demand has been so high that they now churn 90 litres per week and have been able to give up their respective jobs to focus on the business.
Incredibly, Abernethy Butter is the only hand-churned butter produced in Northern Ireland, and Allison was good enough to take me through a typical day on her farm:
‘The cream comes in around 6am and we allow it to warm to around 12 degrees so it’s easier to churn. We churn it to remove the buttermilk from the cream and then wash the butter five times with water to remove any potential sourness from the buttermilk.
‘It is then salted and Will pats it out with traditional wooden panels, and we allow it to harden slightly before hand wrapping it by hand.'
The cream comes from a farm just eight miles away and the provenance of this vital ingredient is of utmost importance to Allison:
‘We know the cows are well looked after and are fed properly on grass, which has a huge influence in the flavour of the butter. The farmer has 350 cows and they’re kept outside in the summer. Getting to see they’re healthy is of the utmost importance to us.’
The butter has won several awards which include a two star Taste award in 2012 and bronze at The Royal Highland Show in the same year. It is also highly regarded by a string of Michelin starred chefs, including Heston Blumenthal and Marcus Wareing, and is also stocked in the prestigious food halls of Fortnum and Mason.
Clearly very passionate about her work, Allison tells me what this means to her:
‘When we were called by the likes of Marcus Wareing I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe someone of his stature knew about our butter and it just made me so proud.
'We now supply five Michelin starred restaurants and a whole host of others too.’
It has only just been announced as I 'go to press' that Abernethy Butter has made it into the final three of the BBC Farming Awards 2014, quite an achievement having been only the market for three years.
When I first tasted Abernethy Butter, I couldn’t believe the difference in taste compared to spreads and butters available in supermarkets. It was so creamy and rich that I found myself actually eating it straight up!
Butter has suffered a bad reputation since the ‘70s when a study suggested that saturated fat was a major factor in high cholesterol, but this was never actually proven. More recent studies are starting to suggest that butter can actually be beneficial to our health.
It is rich in vitamins A, E and K as well as selenium, which helps prevents cancer and heart disease. The short and medium chain fatty acids in butter are quickly burned off by the body and not stored, so it doesn’t create excess body fat.
Margarine on the other hand is full of trans-fats, which increase bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. It also lacks the fat-soluble vitamins found in butter.
The butter vs marg debate will no doubt ramble on, but as Allison, who is nominated for Business Woman of the Year, says ‘everything in moderation’ is always the best approach.
Being a successful artisanal product can attract attention from the supermarkets and I wondered if Abernethy Butter has been subject to attention from the big boys:
‘We don’t want to supply supermarkets with our product – we want to keep it with small businesses because we feel it makes the product more special.’
I was shocked at how few artisan butter producers there were in the UK, especially when you think how widely used butter and the various derivatives of it are in our diet. Hopefully, Abernethy Butter can continue going from strength to strength and even inspire others to start making REAL butter.